To the Editor:
In “What Was T.S. Eliot?” [March], Robert Alter takes a cynical view of Eliot’s conversion to Christianity. But it should not surprise us that T.S. Eliot would so fervently champion the Christian faith, for Eliot, it seems, was always out of step with the times.
At a time when the “free-elective” system at Harvard was gaining popularity, Eliot was fighting for the study of the Great Books. At a time when totalitarian societies were on the rise, he was arguing for the “idea of a Christian society,” one permeated with the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman. And at the same time that hollow men were seeking redemption through secular liberalism and self-worship, Eliot was insisting that human beings needed to renew religious faith and commitment.
The British literary critic Lyndall Gordon views Eliot’s religious struggles and conversion with a great deal more sympathy than does Mr. Alter. Miss Gordon contends in her book, Eliot’s Early Years, that the turning point in Eliot’s religious life and development came not at the time of his baptism in 1927 but rather in 1914, when “he was circling, in moments of agitation, on the edge of conversion.” Miss Gordon bases her belief on a group of intensely religious poems that Eliot never published. In these poems, a bold convert, a passionate martyr, or a saint displaces the frustrated philosopher of the 1910-12 poems. . . .
During 1916 and 1917, Eliot was writing review-essays that criticized authors whom he believed were trying to water down Chrisianity to make the faith more acceptable to scornful intellectuals. He was especially critical of writers who removed from Christianity its ascetic, radical, and self-sacrificial aspects, and thus made it too lukewarm, too liberal, and, indeed, too effeminate; he sharply rebuked one writer for suggesting that following Jesus Christ could be made much easier. “Certain saints found the following of Christ very hard, but modern methods have facilitated everything,” Eliot sardonically observed.
T.S. Eliot’s rediscovery of Christianity, it seems to me, resulted from what Plato and Augustine so aptly termed “order in the soul.” There is order in the soul when one lives a life of virtue, when one’s thoughts and deeds assuage the intense demands of one’s higher and nobler nature, contribute to the perfection of one’s nature, and lead one to the author of one’s nature, namely, God.
It was T.S. Eliot’s craving for spiritual order and harmony that motivated his decision to become a member of the Anglican Church in 1927. “The acts of exorcism he performed in his poetry were not enough in themselves to rid his swept and garnished house of the evil spirits that threatened to dispose him,” T.S. Matthews observed. For that, said Matthews, Eliot believed “he had to have the assurance of superhuman power. No distant, deist, Unitarian God could have sustained him.” . . .
Haven Bradford Gow
Arlington Heights, Illinois
To the Editor:
No, I refuse to surrender my supposed uniqueness so quickly! Robert Alter, what have you done with my individuality, my singularity? I should have liked to continue to believe that I was alone in the 50’s sadly intoning, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws. . . .” The lines so reflected my state of mind and being. And now you insist that my soulfully moaning T.S. Eliot’s lines from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” were simply a very predictable phase of the 50’s adolescent Angst. In fact my best friend and I actually exchanged the very same book of T.S. Eliot’s poems as the most meaningful gift we could think of for the other. I don’t know if her favorite lines in Eliot were also “I should have been a pair of ragged claws . . . ,” but Robert Alter posits that they probably were.
This enormous upset recalls my earlier disbelief, outrage, and fury after I read in Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell that my presumed specificity and distinction from all other humans is as infinitesimal as the difference between the angle of one microorganism’s tail and the slant of the next microorganism’s tail. . . . Must I now come to the poignant realization that T.S. Eliot’s lines in “Prufrock” also offered equally essential and heartfelt comfort to many others in the 50’s?
New York City
To the Editor:
It’s not great
with tea and cake;
beat my breast
in deep distress
like Eliot, T.S.
Robert Alter writes:
Contrary to what Haven Bradford Gow claims, my view of Eliot’s conversion was saddened, not cynical. Nothing in my essay questioned the sincerity of Eliot’s embrace of Anglicanism. I did say that it was a strategy of desperation, reflecting Eliot’s radical inability to cope with the human here-and-now. The sado-masochistic martyrdom poems of around 1914 are of course an acute early symptom of that very inability.
I am pleased to note that Sephine Melrod and F.A. Matsen, like me, and unlike Mr. Gow, are able to derive some amusement from a topic that once evoked nothing but solemnity for so many.